Return of the Living Dead

Directed by: Dan O’ Bannon

Written by: Dan O’Bannon (Screenplay), Rudolph J. Ricci, John Russo, Russ Streiner (Story)

Released: 1985; Fox Films Ltd.


Clu Gulager as Burt

James Karen as Frank

Don Calfa as Ernie

Thom Mathews as Freddy

That’s right, boys and ghouls… August 16, 2015 marked the 30 year anniversary of one of my favorite fright films of all time; RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD! When I think of the films that started my love of the genre, this one has to be mentioned (along with Children of the Corn, Creepshow and Creepshow II). Now, when I say I was obsessed with this blood bath, I mean I was obsessed; specifically for a week during a summer. My poor VHS copy has been spun through the loops a couple dozen times…like, know this movie better than the back of my hand. It’s literally a party! There’s humor, gore, frights, jump scares; even an absolute tear-jerking scene involving Frank and a cremation chamber. Yikes. So, grab your copy, throw on your favorite Tarman tee, grab a bowl of “live brraainnss” and try not to rip your arm completely off your shoulder for the 30th birthday extravaganza! Do you wanna party? It’s party time!

The Back Story

Return has a history that’s full of big names in the genre, as well as a few hiccups that almost prevented the film from being made. John Russo, who co-wrote the screenplay of Night of the Living Dead with George A. Romero, wrote the novel version of Return after gaining the title rights to ‘Living Dead’ (hence the Night of the Living Dead references).  He was approached to write the screenplay for Return and accepted, and wrote a version that had very close ties to the novel. That…would be an amazing read.

Originally, the studio wanted legend Tobe Hooper to direct this film, but he backed out in order to direct Lifeforce. Dan O’Bannon was brought on to add some of his own creative juices to the Return script, but with the project not having a director, the studio offered the director’s chair to him. Fun side note…O’Bannon wrote the screenplay for Lifeforce, so his ties with Hooper got him the job of directing this megaforce.

O’Bannon had a few stipulations before diving headfirst into Return; he wanted to change the script. Almost completely different from its original form. He added in the group of punk kids that changed the landscape of the film. The budget for the film was around $4 million, which it eclipsed on its opening weekend. Great moves made to ensure a great movie that I could watch over and over again.

The Meat

The film begins with the two loveable screwballs, Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews). Karen is a god of television and screen, with roles in Invaders From Mars, Wall Street, The Unborn, a very familiar role in Return II (alongside Mathews) and countless numbers of television shows. Mathews is a genre master in his own right. He will always be remembered by me and genre hounds in his role as grown-up Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th VI: Jason Lives. He also plays a role in the 1986 film Dangerously Close, one I haven’t seen but looks amazing. Thoughts?? Let me know!

Anywho, Frank and Freddy work at a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, KY. Freddy is new and Frank begins creeping the youngster out with a story of how Night of the Living Dead was based on a true case and the warehouse received drums from the military by accident and bodies are in the drums. When showing them off, Frank accidentally opens one of the drums, shooting a poisonous gas in their faces. To make matters worse, the gas reanimates the dead!

Their boss and manager of the warehouse, Burt (Clu Gulager), I’d called to help clean up the mess…and destroy the living dead running around the warehouse. Destroy and brain and the zombie dies, right? Nope. So they devise a scheme to burn the bodies using a nearby crematorium ran by Burt’s friend Ernie (Don Calfa). Note: not a sesame street reference. Frank and Freddy aren’t looking great and Burt’s rabid weasels story has gotten bodies into the oven…but the trouble is just beginning. Freddy’s punk rock, badass friends are partying hard in a nearby cemetery. When the bodies are burned, the gas is released into the atmosphere, causing rain clouds to release acid rain. It sinks into the soil and brings the dead to life, causing mass chaos with brain hungry zombies that run full speed and take fools out like the Seattle linebackers. Now the party starts!

The Verdict

This, hands down, is my absolute favorite zombie film. Probably my least favorite sub-genre, but there are always exceptions to the rule. Return of the Living Dead not only is an exception, but it stands in my top 10 horror films of all-time. Gulager, Karen, Mathews and Calfa all deliver amazing performances and keep the action, comedy and terror going the entire time. I didn’t talk much about the gang of ruffians, but they honestly take this film from great to baller status. Trash, Suicide, Tina and Spider (just to name a few) are all hilarious in their own ways and turn up the acting when it comes to dread. O’Bannon’s directing and writing are really on display in this one. He takes an apocalyptic atmosphere and makes it just as fun as it is terrible. And this thing bumps with an awesome soundtrack featuring T.S.O.L.,The Damned, The Cramps and an unbelievable theme performed by 45 Grave. You know the song. If you haven’t seen this piece of gloriousness, then do yourself the biggest favor of the week and watch it!!!

My Rating: 8.5/10